Let’s begin with a logically sound axiom: What you don’t know about moral delinquents – particularly if they are politicians – can’t hurt them.
During the administration of John Kennedy, a likeable, highly charismatic president, it was no secret among reporters whose business it was to keep people informed that the president had a woman problem: He liked them – very, very much -- and bedded as many of them as possible.
The attitude of the media towards Kennedy’s satyriasis was enlightened: Why make much ado about hypersexual disorder if Kennedy’s affairs did not materially affect his presidency? Suppose Mr. Kennedy had been a genius mathematician. Would his frequent sexual encounters distort the veracity of his mathematical computations? Of course not. Why then make much ado about Kennedy’s erotic liaisons if they did not interfere with the functioning of his office? This separation of eroticism and the man was, during the Kennedy years and before, the operative attitude of the media. Of course, less adept politicians than Kennedy occasionally flubbed up and let the cat out of the bag, in which case the media was free to treat them as lambs leading themselves to the slaughter.
The Profumo affair, a 1963 scandal in Britain involving Secretary of State for War John Profumo and Christine Keeler, a reputed mistress of a man thought to be a Soviet spy, created a small lake of spilled ink. One of Kennedy’s several conquests was Judith Campbell Exner, thought to be a mistress of Mafia boss Sam "Momo" Giancana. In a People magazine interview in 1988, Exner said she had set up an initial meeting with Kennedy and Giancana during the presidential election of 1960 and for several months afterwards had served as a courier between the two, carrying messages concerning plans to assassinate Cuban Communist dictator Fidel Castro.
At some point between the Kennedy administration and the present day, the media became less shy about reporting sexual skullduggery among politicians. Over the years, however, the moral “do-nots” have evolved.
Politicians now regularly put away their wives and remarry without incurring the kind of public disfavor that earlier might have deprived them of office. Here in Connecticut, three prominent and long serving U.S. Senators – Lowell Weicker, Joe Lieberman and Chris Dodd -- traded in their wives for newer models without any damage to their careers. In nearby Massachusetts, founded by morally uptight Puritans, U.S. Senator Edward Kennedy ended his 23 year marriage, having been granted a faux annulment by the Catholic Church, and went on to happier days with a less conflicted wife. Dodd and then U.S. Senator Edward Kennedy ran into some media enforcers when they sandwiched a waitress between them in a Washington bistro, but this indiscretion was quickly put down to drunkenness rather than sexual impropriety and the political careers of both survived media scrutiny.
The career of presidential aspirant John Edwards came to an abrupt end when he admitted to a sexual affair with Rielle Hunter, a filmmaker attached to his presidential campaign. The happy issue of the prolonged, much denied affair was a child, but Edwards’ political prospects were left in ruins, as was his marriage and his honor.
All of which brings us to postmodern times and Elliot Spitzer who, like his counterpart in Connecticut, former Attorney General Dick Blumenthal, achieved fame by flagellating with litigation moral cretins, Wall Street Lords of the Earth and Big Business, after which Spitzer fell, exhausted, into the soft arms of a few high end prostitutes. Driven out of office by something resembling a sense of shame, Spitzer is now back in the political stream, running for Comptroller of New York, a post for which he is well suited, according to most libertine journalists.
The libertines, considerably more at liberty than they were in the Camelot days of Kennedy, now ask: If the Marquis de Sade were an accomplished New York accountant whose long suffering wife were to hit the campaign trail with him in an effort to convince New York voters that his past sexual exploits should not serve as a bar to his political ambitions, would New York commentators pump his campaign by hauling into print ancient canards concerning the wall of separation between sex and politics?
And, while we are on the point, does anyone know what length of time should pass before a politician’s disgraceful sexual acts should reasonably be discounted by voters? The time between sins and elections in the postmodern era appears to be growing alarmingly short.